How losing home in Hurricane Harvey helped mold Kentucky basketball PG Sahvir Wheeler

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – Four years later, Sahvir Wheeler still vividly remembers the damage.

After waiting out Hurricane Harvey in College Station Texas, Wheeler, his parents and five younger siblings returned to Houston to find their home destroyed by flooding.

“We lived in the downtown area, so that was bad,” Wheeler said in a one-on-one interview with the Courier Journal. “Water was just crashing, coming in. I remember going back to the place we were living. Cars were flipped over, trees were down, the basketball courts were completely destroyed.”

It should come as no surprise Wheeler made particular note of the basketball courts.

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Basketball was already an essential part of the 5-foot-10 point guard’s life. It would play an even larger role over the next two years as Wheeler elected to finish out his high school career at Houston Christian even after his family relocated to College Station after the storm.

During that period, Houston Christian won back-to-back state championships. Wheeler, who was committed to Texas A&M at the time of the hurricane, eventually signed with Georgia.

As a sophomore at Georgia, Wheeler led the Southeastern Conference in assists. In May, he announced he was transferring to Kentucky.

Handling aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

Lessons learned in the hurricane’s aftermath have proven vital throughout Wheeler’s basketball journey.

“I think it’s one of those things that helped him understand how life is filled with swift transitions, and a lot of this stuff is fleeting,” Sahvir’s father Teddy Wheeler said of the hurricane’s impact on his son. “I think he was able to assess what things were important and what things are not, what things are disposable and what things are eternal. I think it did change him as a young man.”

Sahvir Wheeler transferred to Kentucky after leading the Southeastern Conference in assists for Georgia as a sophomore.

Wheeler had the option to attend the local high school in College Station after his family relocated, but he felt he had no desire to sever the strong bonds he had already built with the Houston Christian community.

With so much of the family’s life already disrupted, Teddy Wheeler agreed to make the hour-plus trip daily so his oldest son would not have to change schools.

“That community loved him in a way that made him want to inspire me to drive 95 miles a day from door to door, which in hindsight was ridiculous,” Teddy Wheeler said. “We did it because that’s how much his commitment to his school, his community has meant to us, that he could continue to be a part of that. It did shape him, because he built some friendships that were important.”

The Wheelers needed help though.

Houston Christian athletic director Dan Lee launched a GoFundMe that raised more than $7,000. With late games followed by early morning classes, Wheeler frequently stayed with friends in the city.

Despite being the oldest of six children, Wheeler downplays additional responsibility he took on in the aftermath of the storm to keep his brothers and sisters positive. It was a group effort, he said.

“The world is not over,” he said. “We were all just like, ‘OK. It’s unfortunate we lost our house, but we know we’re going to bounce back, we’re going to be OK.’ The one thing I can guarantee about our family is we’re going to be OK. No matter what it is, no matter what we’re facing, as long as we’re together, as long as we keep our faith, keep praying, we’re going to be OK, we’re going to get by.”

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Instead of focusing on what they had lost, the Wheeler family set incremental goals for each member to make sure they were looking ahead.

For Sahvir, that mindset paid major dividends on the court.

Coping after the storm

Across his final two seasons at Houston Christian, Wheeler helped the team to a dominant 61-13 record with two Southwest Preparatory state titles. The Houston Chronicle named him the Houston Private School MVP as a senior despite him missing the first half of the season with a knee injury. ESPN ranked him as the No. 78 prospect in the country.

“It says something about just his overall character,” Houston Christian coach Ron Crandall said. “That’s just who he is. He’s not going to give in, he’s not going to give up. He’s going to keep pursuing excellence to the highest level. His teammates, they didn’t want to let him down because of the commitment he had made to them. That was what was so cool about that time.”

The lessons Wheeler had learned in dealing with “swift transitions” would be put to the use again in March 2019 when Texas A&M fired coach Billy Kennedy.

Going to Georgia, transferring to Kentucky

The school released Wheeler from his National Letter of Intent. He eventually flipped his commitment to Georgia, where one of his primary recruiters to Texas A&M, assistant coach Amir Abdur-Rahim, had found a new job.

Wheeler broke Georgia’s freshman assists record (139) during his debut season. As a sophomore, he broke the program’s single-season assist record (193) while also leading the Bulldogs in points (14) and steals (1.7) per game, but the isolation forced upon players due to the COVID-19 pandemic made him start to reconsider his future.

Georgia missed the NCAA Tournament in both of Wheeler’s seasons on campus. The odds were already stacked against 5-foot-10 point guards reaching the NBA, but if Wheeler was going to buck that trend, he thought playing for a marquee program with top draft prospects alongside him would be his best opportunity.

At Kentucky, Wheeler will have that chance.

Calipari emphasized adding shooting ability as he worked to rebuild the roster in the wake of Kentucky’s worst season since the Great Depression. Transfers Kellan Grady and C.J. Fredrick and five-star high school signee TyTy Washington joined with returners Davion Mitnz and Dontaie Allen to give UK a quintet of elite 3-point shooters in its backcourt.

Wheeler is considered the worst shooter of Kentucky’s guards, but he is the team’s best passer. With defenses forced to guard his sharp-shooting teammates, Wheeler thinks he will shoot a higher percentage thanks to more open looks.

But he knows his first responsibility is to be the floor general who keeps everyone involved and happy.

That’s where being the oldest of six children comes in handy.

“I think it’s equipped me to handle people of all walks of life, people of all personalities,” Wheeler said. “I think that’s the biggest thing: Being able to know what pushes them and when they’re down, what brings them up. I think having younger siblings who are kind of prone to those mood swings, or super, super highs or super, super lows, I’ve kind of learned how to keep everyone even-keeled and keep everyone happy.

“At the end of the day, if your guys are happy, if they want to play with you, if they want to do this because they know they’re going to have a chance to shine, that’s all you can want as a point guard.”

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Even if Kentucky immediately bounces back from its 9-16 season to justify a likely preseason top-10 ranking, there will almost certainly be bumps along the road to a deep NCAA Tournament run.

The current Wildcats may not be as young as most of Calipari’s Kentucky teams, but the influx of veteran transfers will still need time to learn how to play alongside each other. Finding a system that plays to the roster’s strengths and determining the best group of five to play together will be a process as well.

When adversity hits, UK players need only look to the team’s diminutive point guard to learn about the value of staying positive.

Four years after Hurricane Harvey destroyed his family’s home, Wheeler still carries the experience with him.

“I think the biggest thing is if you can overcome that, you can overcome anything,” Wheeler said. “We came out of that experience better. Better as a family, better as a standpoint where everything was upgraded. House was upgraded, cars, clothes.

“The only thing we took was our important documents, pictures, birth certificates, stuff like that. That just showed the amount of resilience that each of us had individually to get through that. … We just kept each other up and strong, knowing we’re going to come out of it for the better.”

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ